A Higher Education by Rosalie Stanton

It is a truth universally acknowledged that first impressions are a bitch.

In a sea of college freshmen, Elizabeth Bennet feels more like a den mother than a returning student. She’d rather be playing Exploding Kittens than dodge-the-gropers at a frat party, but no way was she letting her innocent, doe-eyed roommate go alone.

Everything about Meryton College screams old money—something she and Jane definitely are not—but Elizabeth resolves to enjoy herself. That resolve is tested—and so is her temper—when she meets Will Darcy, a pompous blowhole with no sense of fun, and his relentlessly charming wingman, Charlie.

Back at school after prolonged break, Will Darcy is far too old and weary for coeds. Yet even he can see why Charlie spontaneously decides the captivating Jane is “the one.” What throws Will is his own reaction to Jane’s roommate.

Elizabeth’s moonlight skin and shining laugh hit him like a sucker punch. And he doesn’t like it. Elizabeth Bennet is dangerous, not only because she has a gift for making him make an ass of himself, but because she and her razor-sharp wit could too easily throw his life off course, and he can’t afford for that to happen again.

Yet he also can’t seem to stay away.”

Okay, I feel like I shouldn’t have enjoyed this as much as I did, but damn, it was a fun read.  I’ve been a little hard on people who try to re-write P&P, especially when they change the characters beyond all recognition (I’m looking at you, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies).  Because of that, I was a bit hesitant going into this book.  But I can happily say that my fears were unfounded.  This is a deliciously naughty, incredibly snarky, skillfully modernized retelling that had me laughing out loud.

What really impressed me was how the conflicts in the original novel were translated for the here-and-now.  For example, instead of Jane being scorned by the Bingley sisters for her bad connections, in this story the problem lies in the fact that Jane is Black.  It’s a bold choice, but one that resonates strongly, especially in the racially charged climate of today.  In another example, Wickham tells everyone that Darcy framed him for possession of cocaine and got him thrown out of school, instead of denying him a lucrative position in the church.

The one thing that wasn’t in this novel that I really missed was the inclusion of the smarmy Mr. Collins.  I can see that it would have been difficult to put him in this version of the story, though, and shoehorning him in just for the sake of having him present would have been worse.  His wife Charlotte makes a brief “on-screen” appearance, but Collins himself is never seen.  He’s one of my favorite comedic character portrayals and in some ways, the story of Darcy and Lizzy isn’t the same without him.  The tension that he provides the tale is expressed in different ways, and it works pretty well, but I do miss him.

One warning: there are some pretty explicit sex scenes in the book.  They’re well done, and don’t come across as unnecessary to the narrative, but I know that such things aren’t for everyone.  If the thought of reading about Darcy and Lizzy getting it on in a janitor’s closet freaks you out, you should probably skip this one.  Otherwise, read on and have fun!

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

eligible“This version of the Bennet family—and Mr. Darcy—is one that you have and haven’t met before: Liz is a magazine writer in her late thirties who, like her yoga instructor older sister, Jane, lives in New York City. When their father has a health scare, they return to their childhood home in Cincinnati to help—and discover that the sprawling Tudor they grew up in is crumbling and the family is in disarray.

Youngest sisters Kitty and Lydia are too busy with their CrossFit workouts and Paleo diets to get jobs. Mary, the middle sister, is earning her third online master’s degree and barely leaves her room, except for those mysterious Tuesday-night outings she won’t discuss. And Mrs. Bennet has one thing on her mind: how to marry off her daughters, especially as Jane’s fortieth birthday fast approaches.

Enter Chip Bingley, a handsome new-in-town doctor who recently appeared on the juggernaut reality TV dating show Eligible. At a Fourth of July barbecue, Chip takes an immediate interest in Jane, but Chip’s friend neurosurgeon Fitzwilliam Darcy reveals himself to Liz to be much less charming. . . .

And yet, first impressions can be deceiving.”

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.

Normally I wouldn’t do a review with spoilers, but it’s hard to talk about this one without them.  Since this is a retelling of Pride and Prejudice, part of my review has to do with how the changes in this modernization stack up against the original, and I can’t really do that without revealing a few things.  So, consider yourself warned!

For the most part, the characters stay pretty true to the originals, in the sense that you can see their personalities translating into modern times fairly well.  Mr. Bennet’s trademark wit is on display, as is the empty-headedness of Kitty and Lydia (shown here in their passion for fads).  Mary is still studious, Jane is still mild-mannered (probably all that yoga), and Mrs. Bennet is predictably obsessed with her daughters getting married.

There are more deviations in the other characters than there are in the core family.  For instance, Mr. Collins, a pompous rector in the original book, is here a socially inept computer nerd.  Darcy is a surgeon who rarely spends time at his grand estate.  Wickham (Jasper Wick in this story) is still angling for money out of marriage, but in a different way.  I think the biggest change is Lady Catherine De Bourgh, who barely has a role in Sittenfeld’s work and is a much nicer person than her inspiration was.

Many of the modernizations of situation work well: instead of the Bennet’s house being entailed, they’re about to lose it due to medical bills; Bingley is well known for being on the marriage market because he was on a Bachelor-style TV show; and Liz’s characterization as the “sensible” sister comes through as she helps to navigate her family through their upheavals.

There were a few things that didn’t work so well, though, and they’re pretty big.  For one thing, having Liz and Darcy be “friends with benefits”, while possibly more realistic, doesn’t work with how the two are supposed to be at odds for most of the story.  Also, Lydia’s marriage, not to Wick, but to a transgender man, is uncomfortable for portraying a trans person as being socially unacceptable (as a parallel to Lydia and Wickham running off together is social suicide in the original).

In the main, I think much of the pleasure of this book will come from fans of the classic reading this and noting how the story has been translated to 21st century American culture.  Those who have no familiarity with the Bennets in their native land and time may not respond as strongly to this book, because I think some of the writing and plot twists hinge on knowing how the original played out.  This doesn’t make the book a failure; it just means that you’ll get more out of it if you’ve read Austen’s source material.

I’d caution the author to be careful about using sexual orientation and gender identity as plot devices, but otherwise, Eligible is an fun read for the Pride and Prejudice geeks among us.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

Tell the Wind and Fire by Sarah Rees Brennan

tell-the-wind-and-fire“In a city divided between opulent luxury in the Light and fierce privations in the Dark, a determined young woman survives by guarding her secrets.

Lucie Manette was born in the Dark half of the city, but careful manipulations won her a home in the Light, celebrity status, and a rich, loving boyfriend. Now she just wants to keep her head down, but her boyfriend has a dark secret of his own—one involving an apparent stranger who is destitute and despised. Lucie alone knows the young men’s deadly connection, and even as the knowledge leads her to make a grave mistake, she can trust no one with the truth.

Blood and secrets alike spill out when revolution erupts. With both halves of the city burning, and mercy nowhere to be found, can Lucie save either boy—or herself?”

This book had two things that attracted me to it: one, I’ve liked the author’s other books; and two, it was billed as a re-imagining of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.  Now granted, I haven’t read that book, but I’m always up for an interesting re-telling.  Given that the Dickens novel is a classic for a reason, I hoped that Brennan’s novel would engage me simply by virtue of a good story.

Well… I have mixed feelings about this novel.  Oddly enough, one of the things that drew me to the book is one of the things that I thought didn’t work well–the author’s writing style.  I enjoyed the snarky humor that Brennan used in her other books, but in this setting, it felt kind of forced.  I’m not sure why plot and style didn’t mix, but it could be that the more serious subject matter of this story didn’t lend itself well to that kind of dialogue.

I’m not sure I really liked the characters either.  Lucie is billed too much as a “chosen one” figure, the focus of the Dark city’s efforts to foment a revolution, but she doesn’t really have the qualities to pull off that kind of role.  Ethan, Lucie’s boyfriend, is too good to be true and kind of blends into the background.  Carwyn, from the Dark city, was more interesting, but spent too much time trying to be witty.

Balanced against these failings are some memorable moments.  Brennan’s wit may not fit well here, but her ability to conjure a scene sometimes rises above the novel’s other issues.  I was especially struck by the cages that are used to punish Light magicians–the descriptions not only of the cages but of the people in them and the atmosphere of their location was very evocative.  And the ending of the book did make me stop and think “Wait… it’s really going to end like this?  Whoa…”

In the end, I think I have give this book a neutral rating.  Other reviewers seem pretty polarized about the novel, either loving it or hating it, but I saw elements of both opinions on my own reading.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

Once Upon a Dream by Liz Braswell

once-upon-a-dream“It should be simple–a dragon defeated, a slumbering maiden, a prince poised to wake her. But when said prince falls asleep as soon as his lips meet the princess’s, it is clear that this fairy tale is far from over.

With a desperate fairy’s last curse infiltrating her mind, Princess Aurora will have to navigate a dangerous and magical landscape deep in the depths of her dreams. Soon she stumbles upon Phillip, a charming prince eager to join her quest. But with Maleficent’s agents following her every move, Aurora struggles to discover who her true allies are, and moreover, who she truly is. Time is running out. Will the sleeping beauty be able to wake herself up?”

This is one of the rare books that I simply could not make myself finish.  I got about a third of the way through it before realizing that it just wasn’t holding my interest and put it down.  I feel bad about that–I try to make every effort to finish a book once I start it–but as I get older I am more likely to follow the maxim “Life is too short to read bad books”.

I’m just not sure what this book was trying to do.  It’s not exactly a twist on the Disney version of the fairy tale, since the story doesn’t follow the movie at all.  It starts with Aurora being kissed by the prince, but then the prince falls asleep and the story goes from there.  Aurora is dreaming through the whole novel, living in a world created by Maleficent, one that paints the evil fairy as good.  I’m not quite sure where the dream came from–I can believe Maleficent’s dying curse being one that sends the prince to sleep, but why create this elaborate dream world?  It’s the same problem I had with the movie The Matrix: if you can keep someone asleep forever, why let them dream and give them a possible out?

It’s entirely possible that this question is answered further into the book, but sadly, what I read didn’t encourage me to keep going and find out.  Aurora is shallow, Maleficent is a parody of her normal self, and there’s really nobody else to keep the novel going.  Yes, Prince Philip is supposed to show up later, but I don’t see what he would add the story.

I’m not going to give this book a chocolate kiss rating, because it wouldn’t be fair, given that I didn’t finish the book.  I also won’t say that there’s nothing redeeming about this novel, because I’m sure that there are people for whom the premise would draw them in.  For me, though, it didn’t work.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston

a-thousand-nights“Lo-Melkhiin killed three hundred girls before he came to her village, looking for a wife. When she sees the dust cloud on the horizon, she knows he has arrived. She knows he will want the loveliest girl: her sister. She vows she will not let her be next.

And so she is taken in her sister’s place, and she believes death will soon follow. Lo-Melkhiin’s court is a dangerous palace filled with pretty things: intricate statues with wretched eyes, exquisite threads to weave the most beautiful garments. She sees everything as if for the last time.But the first sun rises and sets, and she is not dead. Night after night, Lo-Melkhiin comes to her and listens to the stories she tells, and day after day she is awoken by the sunrise. Exploring the palace, she begins to unlock years of fear that have tormented and silenced a kingdom. Lo-Melkhiin was not always a cruel ruler. Something went wrong.

Far away, in their village, her sister is mourning. Through her pain, she calls upon the desert winds, conjuring a subtle unseen magic, and something besides death stirs the air.

Back at the palace, the words she speaks to Lo-Melkhiin every night are given a strange life of their own. Little things, at first: a dress from home, a vision of her sister. With each tale she spins, her power grows. Soon she dreams of bigger, more terrible magic: power enough to save a king, if she can put an end to the rule of a monster.”

So, I was of two minds about this book.

One mind really enjoyed the lush writing style and storytelling.  There was an old-fashioned feel the prose that suited the tale well and reminded me of some novels that I’ve read that were written many decades ago.  The other mind was raising and eyebrow and thinking “Really?”  And it’s hard to reconcile those two different viewpoints into one coherent opinion.  I guess, for this title, it will really depend on what you want out of an Arabian Nights retelling and what you’re in the mood for when you pick it up.

If you like strong female characters, you may like our unnamed heroine, who doesn’t just sit on her butt and wait for something to happen to her, but instead takes control of her fate.  You may not like her because, as I mentioned, she is unnamed–she literally has no identity beyond her roles in the story.

If you like powerful storytelling, you’ll probably enjoy the bits of the original that creep into the narrative in the form of the nightly stories (for the small amount of time that they last), and you might like the later chapters where war against Lo-Melkhiin is brewing.  On the other hand, you might think that the focus on this war takes away from the retelling of the source material.

If you like evocative prose, I’m pretty sure you’ll be eager to read some of the descriptive sentences that the author dreams up.  Or, you could be of the opinion that there are too many words being used to express simple concepts.

See?  It’s all in the interpretation and what you want to be reading at any given time.  I went back and forth between such viewpoints as I read the book, and when I got to the end, I was a bit let down.  I really enjoyed the early chapters with the nightly storytelling, but the novel quickly left that behind.  However, I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy the book overall, so I can give a cautious recommendation of this book.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from B&N.com.)

Alice by Christina Henry

alice“In a warren of crumbling buildings and desperate people called the Old City, there stands a hospital with cinderblock walls which echo the screams of the poor souls inside.

In the hospital, there is a woman. Her hair, once blond, hangs in tangles down her back. She doesn’t remember why she’s in such a terrible place. Just a tea party long ago, and long ears, and blood…

Then, one night, a fire at the hospital gives the woman a chance to escape, tumbling out of the hole that imprisoned her, leaving her free to uncover the truth about what happened to her all those years ago.

Only something else has escaped with her. Something dark. Something powerful.

And to find the truth, she will have to track this beast to the very heart of the Old City, where the rabbit waits for his Alice.”

I appear to be one of the few people who felt that this book was merely so-so.  I had to think about it for a bit to pin down why, and I’m still not entirely sure that the answer isn’t simply “This book wasn’t for me”.  However, I have a few points that I’d like to touch on that I felt contributed to making this novel a less-than-stellar read.

First of all, there’s no getting around the fact that this book contains a veritable fiesta of sexual abuse.  Other than Alice’s partner in crime, Hatcher, I can really only think of one male character (not even a major one, just a simple male character) who doesn’t view women as a commodity, or something to be used, or something to possess.  The prevailing portrayal of women is as victims, even when they exhibit some strengths–they still seem to be defined by what men inflict on them.  Even Alice, our main character and heroine, spends much of the novel defining herself by her experience at the hands of the Rabbit.

The next thing I noticed was that this story bears very little resemblance to the original Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  It’s not a retelling, not a reboot, and not a sequel.  At most, it takes inspiration from the Carroll’s novel and spirals off from there.  Much as Alice is supposed to be mad, the world we find her is one that has run crazy, but on misplaced power and greed.  About the only parallels you’ll find that are familiar are the names of characters: the Rabbit, the Caterpillar, Dor (who is mousy), etc.  I realize that the source novel was mostly a series of vignettes forming a loose commentary on British society, but here, the attempt to form a narrative and still maintain that wild weirdness just doesn’t mesh.

This means that there’s not much plot–it’s mostly Alice and Hatcher trying to remember their pasts and kill just about everyone who gets in their way.  It’s a slasher version of Wonderland, twisted and dark.  It’s both a plus and a minus that you can’t really tell if everything is happening in Alice’s imagination–or her madness.  I think that, as a reader, you have to ask yourself that question and form your own opinion.  The villains are stylized to the point that they may just be avatars of Alice’s demons, but there’s no way to know for sure.

All that said, the language is extremely detailed and visually oriented–not always pleasant when you realize how much murder and rape happens here.  If Henry was going for “disturbing” as the novel’s takeaway, she succeeded beautifully.  And maybe that’s why I didn’t like it as much.  I’m not one for gratuitous gore, and I never have been.  I understand that some books are violent, but I don’t seek out such stories.

I had a little fun watching the various Wonderland-based characters show up and seeing how the author would translate them into this setting.  There were some clever bits with these people, although I do wonder where the Red Queen is in all this.  Apparently this novel will have a sequel, so maybe she’ll show up next time.

I didn’t especially like or dislike this novel.  I can see how it would appeal to a lot of people, but I’m just not one of them.  There are no real flaws to speak of–simply me getting something other than what I expected and not really feeling that the story was one that I would have otherwise sought out.  I’d recommend this book more for horror fans than those of fantasy or children’s literature.  Goodness knows, this certainly isn’t a children’s book.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from B&N.com.)

A Whole New World by Liz Braswell

a-whole-new-world“What if Aladdin had never found the lamp? This first book in the A Twisted Tale line will explore a dark and daring version of Disney’s Aladdin.

When Jafar steals the Genie’s lamp, he uses his first two wishes to become sultan and the most powerful sorcerer in the world. Agrabah lives in fear, waiting for his third and final wish.To stop the power-mad ruler, Aladdin and the deposed princess Jasmine must unite the people of Agrabah in rebellion. But soon their fight for freedom threatens to tear the kingdom apart in a costly civil war.

What happens next? A Street Rat becomes a leader. A princess becomes a revolutionary. And readers will never look at the story of Aladdin in the same way again.”

This is a concept that I’ve seen used before to good effect: take one critical plot point from a well-known story and change it so that the exact opposite thing happens, and then run with the story from there.  In this book, the tale is the same as Disney’s Aladdin for the first several chapters and then takes a dramatically different turn when Jafar gains possession of the magic lamp instead of Aladdin.  The author manages to slip in some concepts that are more mature than the animated film, such as the common citizens’ perception of the sultan and the rampant poverty in Agrabah, and I liked that the story gained some maturity thereby.

From that point, most of the movie’s major elements remain intact, but skewed to the darker.  For example, instead of “Prince Ali” staging a parade through the streets, it’s Jafar who does so, with the unwilling help of the Genie.  Jafar’s initial two wishes are the same as well, although he gets them much earlier than before.  It’s this manipulation of the tale that I really enjoyed.  Braswell continues throwing in elements that are darker or more mature as well.  Going back to the example of the parade, I liked Aladdin’s observation that all of the dancers and performers look the same, and that it’s kind of creepy.  (Bet you never look at that scene in the movie the same way now.)

The novel suffers from two problems, however.  Once the story starts to diverge from the Disney original, the characters do so as well.  The author doesn’t capture their voices or their personalities very well, and having to spend time establishing new characters like the Street Rats takes away from that development as well.  The other, bigger problem is that this book is just too long.  Yes, I was liking it, but around the two thirds mark I started to feel it getting bogged down.  By the three quarters mark, I caught myself skimming more than once.  For an adaptation of a ninety minute film, 350 pages is just too long.  A good hard edit of this novel would have done wonders, in my opinion.

Braswell had some interesting twists on how you as a reader can view the classic elements of Aladdin, but I think she got too drawn into fleshing out details that didn’t need it.  I’d say that it’s worth a checkout at your local library at least.  I’m hoping the next Twisted Tale to come out does a better job holding its strengths than this one did.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from B&N.com.)

From a High Tower by Mercedes Lackey

from-a-high-tower“From a High Tower is newest adventure in Mercedes Lackey’s Elemental Masters series, featuring a retelling of Rapunzel’s not-so-happily-ever-after ending.”

Yeah, that actually is all the description that’s up online, and not just at B&N.  It’s fitting that there’s not much to the blurb, as there isn’t all that much to the story.  Oh, it’s decently written, and it certainly has the “feel” of Lackey’s other Elemental Masters novels, but if you’re looking for plot, look elsewhere.

You see, almost all of the other books in this series are fairy tale retellings–the stories follow the same basic framework as the source material, but then those elements are woven into historical settings to create something larger and different from the original.  I think this is the first time Lackey broke from that formula, and it didn’t come across all that well.

The traditional elements of “Rapunzel” are present only in the prologue.  After that, the author goes off on an extremely loose plot that is literally rambling (our main character, Giselle, wanders all over Germany).  The only fairy tale holdover, really, is Giselle’s quick-growing hair.  Otherwise, the novel devolves into a snapshot of what it was like to be part of a traveling Wild West show in Europe in the late 1800s.  It’s an interesting snapshot, don’t get me wrong; it’s just that it has absolutely nothing to do with the fairy tale, and it does nothing to advance any sort of plot.

In fact, there’s no tension at all in this book until around 50 pages from the end, when a bad guy suddenly manifests.  This bad guy is handily defeated in the first confrontation and all is well.  Bear in mind, this is a 300-plus page book in which there is no plot development until the final fifteen percent or so.  Then, the book is done and you’re left wondering why it took 300-plus pages to tell it.

I will say this: the book is not a bad read, although it may sound like I’m saying just that.  It’s certainly fun to watch the traveling show doing its thing, and there a couple of mini-adventures with Giselle and her friends confronting various otherworldly beasties.  Lackey’s use of language is well thought out and executed.  It’s a smooth, non-challenging read.  It’s just that it has no plot to speak of.

So what it boils down to is, if you want something easy to read and kind of fluffy, go for this one.  If a book with no clear direction would annoy you, pass this one by.  If you like fairy tale retellings, this isn’t one.  If you like books that paint a picture of a specific period in history, you might find this up your alley.  Basically, your mileage may vary, so approach with that knowledge firmly in mind.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from B&N.com.)

Princess of Thorns by Stacey Jay

princess-of-thorns“Though she looks like a mere mortal, Princess Aurora is a fairy blessed with enhanced strength, bravery, and mercy yet cursed to destroy the free will of any male who kisses her. Disguised as a boy, she enlists the help of the handsome but also cursed Prince Niklaas to fight legions of evil and free her brother from the ogre queen who stole Aurora’s throne ten years ago.

Will Aurora triumph over evil and reach her brother before it’s too late? Can Aurora and Niklaas break the curses that will otherwise forever keep them from finding their one true love?”

You know, given the recent brouhaha around Jay’s Kickstarter campaign–the one that garnered her threatening messages for attempting to raise money to write a sequel to this book–I feel bad giving this book a not-so-positive review.  But I have to be honest and say that I wasn’t at all happy with this novel.

For one thing, I didn’t really see any plot.  The characters mostly went from one place to another with not much happening except a lot of bickering.  The places that they went didn’t stand out to me.  And even though this is billed as a fantasy retelling of Sleeping Beauty, it bears no resemblance to the original fairy tale.

That brings up a second point: a retelling should be just that.  It should take the skeleton of the original story and clothe it in new flesh so that readers meet a whole new creature in reading it.  This?… not so much.  The Sleeping Beauty character, in fact, isn’t even part of the story, since she dies at the start of the book, leaving her two children to win back her kingdom.  The daughter is named Aurora, which is the name of the fairy tale antecedent, but she has nothing in common with that character.

This leads into the third point: the characters ranged from boring to annoying.  Sad to say, Aurora is the boring one.  Although there’s no insta-chemistry with her and the male lead, she really has no personality of her own.  She wanders around, solely focused on raising an army, completely missing the fact that she has no means or support to do so.  Her counterpart, Niklaas, is a character that I’d cheerfully throttle if I ever met him in person.  He’s self-centered, egotistical, and boorish.  He believes that Aurora is her brother (she’s disguised as a boy), but he talks about his plan to marry Aurora as if she has no choice but to fall into his arms at the first opportunity.  And when he inevitably discovers the truth, instead of being mortified at all the things he said, he gets mad at Aurora for fooling him and exposing him as the aforementioned self-centered, egotistical, etc. that he is.

I’ve seen some stellar reviews for this book, so it obviously strikes a positive chord with some people.  Unfortunately, I’m not one of those people, so I’ll have to recommend that you give this book a pass.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an  honest review.

(Description nicked from B&N.com.)